For National Storytelling Week (30th January to 6th February 2021), Learning & Interpretation Officer, Helena Fox, shares some of the local myths and legends told to her as a child from the magical landscape that the NYMR railway travels through.

"The North York Moors has always had a culture rich in storytelling and superstition handed down from generation to generation. As a child visiting from the South of England, I was always enchanted by the rich mythology of the vast landscape that the railway crosses... a landscape peopled with hobs & boggarts, giants & fairy folk and even wizards (or wisemen) and witches (or wisewomen). There are many different tellings of each folklore, depending on which area of the moors you are in, but here is a version of one of these myths, told to me as a child by my grandad & great aunt whenever I visited.

Long before the steam railway provided safe passage across this wild terrain, there was another way to cross the moor, on a road built by a Giant! For long ago a Giant called Wade roamed this remote land. Now Wade had a wife, Bell, a giantess, who kept a cow (also a giant!) up on the moor. Twice a day at milking time, she had to cross the forbidding terrain to reach her beloved cow. And so, Wade set about building a road across the moor to help his wife; this road became known as “The Giant’s Causeway”.

It is said that Bell helped her husband in the task of building a road by breaking up huge boulders into stone slabs, which she carried in her apron skirt. However, one day, in a hurry to get the job finished, she tripped and fell, and in so doing the stone slabs went flying, scattering far and wide across the moors, puncturing the earth and leaving boggy holes here and there. (Many years later, in 1836, the question of how to lay track over one of the holes Bell had made would challenge railway engineer, George Stephenson, at Fen Bog! The fascinating tale of how he overcame this marshy obstacle, through creating a floating track suspended on a bed of timber & sheepskin, may sound the stuff of fairy tales but is in fact true).

In another version of the myth it is said that Wade built the Causeway not for Bell to reach her cow, but to link their two homes, Mulgrave Castle to the north of the Moors and Pickering Castle to the south. As the son of a mermaid, Wade is associated with water, and is thought to have set about building a home near Whitby, to be close to the sea. Yet Bell preferred to live further inland and so set about building another castle at Pickering. However, our two Giants only had one hammer between them and had to throw it back and forth to each other across the moors. But turn taking doesn’t come naturally to giants, and they soon began to bicker about who should have the hammer. In temper Wade threw it high up in the air and it landed with such force that it caused a huge crater to appear right between them, in the middle of the moors, the magnificent Hole of Horcum!


Hole of Horcum - Glen Bowman

There are of course other explanations for the huge amphitheatre at Horcum... and for the ancient stone road across the moors. The arrival of the railway meant the movement of people, and with that the folklore and superstitions of our remote communities were soon being eroded by new scientific ideas just as thousands of years before the hillsides at Horcum had been eroded by spring-sapping, causing this incredible bowl in the landscape to form. I remember being very disappointed when it was suggested that it was not the work of Wade & Bell, as at the time I found the explanation of an angry Giant far more exciting than the scientific one! After all, didn’t the sight of Blakey Topping sitting nearby prove the myth true? For, my grandfather said, “What goes up must come down…and when Wade’s Hammer hit the ground, it did so with such a force the earth flew up in the air and landed close by in the shape of a hill!”

It is possible that this mythological giant was brought over by our Viking ancestors, weaving his way from a character in the Norse Sagas into our own folklore. Some theories argue that he was not a mythological Norse giant at all, but an imposing and statuesque Roman centurion, and that the pathway across the moor is not “Wade’s Causeway” at all, but in fact a Roman road.

Giants are not the only fantastical creatures thought to dwell hereabouts. The remote moorland that the historical Whitby-Pickering and Esk Valley lines crossed was littered with local folklore and mythology; long before Animagus spells, the Grim and a basilisk crept their way into the Harry Potter novels, a witch (who could turn herself into a hare no less) and a barghest, (a mythical black dog with huge teeth and claws) both lived at Goathland, whilst a gigantic underwater worm dug holes in the riverbank at Beck Hole!

With such fantastic creatures peopling the line, who would be blamed for thinking the NYMR is a truly magical railway!”

Take part in our Short Story Writing Competition for a chance to win a Famliy Voucher to visit us later in the year.

Helena Fox
NYMR Learning & Interpretation Officer

Main Image: Keith Harris. Map: Tess Willoughby.